Salome Bey, a Toronto-based singer, songwriter and actress regarded as Canada’s first lady of blues, died on August 8, at age 86, after a long illness.
The news spread on social media yesterday (Aug. 9), and was confirmed in a story on iHeartRadio by John R. Kennedy.
Bey was born in Newark, New Jersey. She formed a vocal group with her brother Andy Bey and sister Geraldine Bey, known as Andy and the Bey Sisters, and they performed in local clubs and toured North America and Europe.
Salome Bey moved to Toronto in 1964 and began singing jazz, blues, and spirituals on the nightclub circuit. She also appeared on radio and TV, and as a featured performer at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1969.
Early theatre work included roles at the Global Village theatre in the Robert Swerdlow revues Blue S.A. (1969) and Justine (1970) and in Spring Thaw.
Bey received an Obie award in 1972 for her performance in the New York production of Justine (renamed Love Me, Love My Children). Leading roles followed in Hair creator Galt MacDermot's Dude (New York 1972); in Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope (Toronto 1973, Washington 1974); and in Your Arms Too Short to Box with God (New York 1975-77). She was nominated for a Grammy Award for her work on the cast album of the latter production.
A career breakthrough in the late ‘70s came with Indigo, a blues and jazz cabaret show on the history of black music that she put together. It earned her the Dora Mavor Moore Award for outstanding performance, and the show was later taped for TV networks.
Her revue Shimmytime (about Ethel Waters) was produced at Basin Street in Toronto 1983, followed there by Madame Gertrude (about Ma Rainey, played by Jackie Richardson), in 1985. Bey's children's musical, Rainboworld, was presented at the Young People's Theatre in 1988. She also took other musical and/or dramatic roles - eg, in Thunder, Perfect Mind (Toronto Free Theatre, 1985); Mother Goose (Royal Alexandra Theatre, 1985); and Coming Through Slaughter (Silver Dollar Tavern, 1989).
Bey continued to appear in concert (including many benefits), in clubs, and on radio and TV, often appearing with her daughters Jacintha Tuku and Saidah Baba Talibah (who now performs as SATE) who, with other musicians, accompanied her as the Relatives.
She sang for Canada Day celebrations at Ontario Place, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and at Expo 86, and is known for her stirring interpretation of Mon Pays, a song she sang first in Spring Thaw.
Her recordings include the LPs Salome Bey (1970), Songs from Dude (1972), and Jazz Canada Europe '79, recorded during a tour of jazz festivals.
She also appeared on albums by the jazz pianist Horace Silver and with the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir. In 1991 Bey received a Toronto Arts Award in the performing arts category.
She received the Martin Luther King Jr. Award for lifetime achievement from the Black Theatre Workshop of Montreal in 1996. In 2005, Bey was made an honourary Member of the Order of Canada.
In her early sixties, Bey began showing signs of dementia. As of 2011 her illness had progressed to the point that she could no longer perform.
Her peers and fans were quick to pay tribute on social media. “Salome had the most powerful voice coupled [with] the most gentle spirit, but she was resilient,” Rosemary Sadlier, former president of the Ontario Black History Society, posted on Facebook. “A life well lived, a family well honed, an amazing legacy!”
Singer-songwriter Ori Dagan tweeted: "She was a dynamic performer who had a powerful, unmistakable way with a lyric." On Facebook, acclaimed jazz vocalist Micah Barnes posted: "Salome. The mother of us all A voice truly blessed from heaven. Who came to inspire us all. Travel easy Momma Bey."
Bill King told FYI that "Salome was a grand artist whose efforts on behalf of bringing black voices to the forefront never wavered. We are where we are today because of her commitment to youth, equality and justice. Her early work, with sister Geraldine and brother Andy, was in tune with the times with other singing groups such as Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Bey employed and championed many a young African Canadian musician."
Her husband of more than 50 years, Toronto restauranteur (the Underground Railroad) Howard Berkeley Matthews, died in 2016. The couple had three children, Saidah Baba Talibah, Jacintha Tuku, and son Marcus.
To honor Salome Bey's life and memory, her family kindly asks that you donate to The Freedom School Toronto (email e-transfers can be sent directly to trustee: firstname.lastname@example.org).